David Easton and Cynthia Wright's house in Napa, California was built in the mid 1990’s using a specialized technique of rammed earth called pise - pneumatically impacted stabilized earth. The house so closely resembles the French country houses of the Rhone River Valley that you almost might think the house was taken down, moved, and reassembled.
Eighteen inch thick walls, a shaded western wall, and well-placed ventilation keep the interior spaces cool all summer long. Radiant heated floors on both levels maintain warmth through the cool winters.
Tucked under a cast-earth portico overgrown with white roses, the front door maintains the farmhouse aesthetic. All the windows in the two-story pise walls are cased with cast earth surround blocks.
Because pise is placed at higher water contents, the finished walls are less dense than rammed earth and thus provide slightly better thermal performance. Mix designs for pise must have much lower shrinkage factors than traditional rammed earth because of these higher moisture contents.
In keeping with the “always an experiment” nature of Easton and Wright’s personal projects, the guest house explored a new twist to building with pise - formwork on the outside, shooting earth from the inside. Notice the smooth surface to the walls, as smooth as the cast earth columns in the foreground.
Out in the gardens, you really might think you were in a two-hundred year old farmhouse in the south of France. Rammed earth and cast earth, exposed to the elements, take on a patina of use that normally comes from decades of slow growing mosses and lichens.
The eastern sun fills this kitchen courtyard in the early mornings. Eggs benedict on a cast earth table, a pinch of cilantro from the potted herbs, the smell of an espresso, and the quiet sound of spring water cascading into the carved stone basin. Bienvenue a terre!